"When people say things behind your back there is nothing you can refute or deny, and the rumors go on growing and growing, and no one can stop them."- Miss Marple (Agatha Christie's "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter," from The Tuesday Club Murders, 1928)
Genre historian Curt Evans, author of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012), and Rupert Heath of the Dean Street Press are promptly becoming the usual suspects in the revival of obscure, long-forgotten mystery writers – having already brought E.R. Punshon, Ianthe Jerrold and Annie Hayes back into the fray.
The next name on their hit list is "Harriet Rutland," whose real name was Olive Shimwell, and wrote "three of the most unjustly neglected English mysteries from the Golden Age of detective fiction." It's an opinion echoed by John Norris in his reviews of Knock, Murderer, Knock (1938) and Bleeding Hooks (1940). So that was all the encouragement I needed to pounce on Rutland's debut novel!
Knock, Murderer, Knock takes place at a hydro-hotel, called Presteignton Hydro, perked above a private beach in Devonshire Bay and the sprawling building provided a home to "a collection of oddities" – most of whom are permanent resident patients of the place.
Rutland succeeded in coating her satirical illustrations of this cast of gossiping gargoyles with a layer of gravity, which complemented the equally unusual plot.
Personally, I was very fond of Mrs. Dawson, who had failed to find a publisher for the thriller novels she had written and sniped at the reader by observing how "the reading public nowadays is never satisfied with only one murder" and there needed to be "two or three, at least." Which would become prophetic!
Ah, but there are more personages of interest: Colonel Simcox, a sock-knitting veteran of the Great War and a working class aristocrat, Lady Warme, who inherited her title from her green-grocer, philanthropic husband, but that's a private-embarrassment. There's also a pious Miss Astill and a batty Mrs. Napier, among others, who are overseen by a staff and a professional nurse under the guidance of Dr. Williams – owner of the resort.
None of these characters or their behavior can be easily pigeonholed as typical, stock-in-trade clichés of the genre, which can be considered as a triumph of characterization. They're all a bit daft or eccentric, which can be an object of fun, but it's their buggy behavior that makes the story swing between satire and brooding seriousness.
But, enough about the characters, lets shift the focus of this review to the plot. A plot with no less than three murders knitted in its design and the first body is that of the beautiful, evocative Miss Kane, who turned the heads of the men and scandalized the women, found slumped on a settee in the lounge – a knitting-needle jammed into the base of her neck.
|A 25-cent Dutch edition Knock, Murderer, Knock|
Inspector Palk is saddled with the responsibility of ferreting out the murderer and is assisted by Sergeant Jago, who laments that the "craze for detective fiction" gives "the general public too much information about finger-prints and police procedure." Of course, the sergeant loves reading thrillers, but it's all right for him because it's his job. Needless to say, I took as much of a liking to sergeant as I did to Mrs. Dawson.
Anyhow, Palk struck me as a poor man's Inspector Roderick Alleyn. At the end of a series of interviews, Palk does make an arrest and assumes the murder is solved, but, "before the week ended," he and his "band of constables" would be back – to resume those "grueling hours of police questioning" after someone else got poked with a knitting-needle.
In his introduction, Evans compares Knock, Murderer, Knock to the works of some of Rutland's "Great British Crime Queen Contemporaries," which has all the familiar names, but neglects to mention Christianna Brand and Gladys Mitchell.
The book reminded me the most of a combination of both their works. The relationship between the first victim and the rest of the cast reminded me of London Particular (1952), in which an outsider is murdered within a close-knit group of people and it doesn't seem to matter – until another murder strikes a lot closer to home. It's even pointed out that Miss Blake and the assumed murderer "had been like visitants from some other world whose actions left them entirely unaffected" and how the situation "might have been different if any of the older residents had been involved in the murder."
Of course, the main difference is that people in Brand's closed group of insiders genuine cared for each other, but that lack of humanity and mental quips would've been food for Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley. Who's not unfamiliar elements of abnormal psychology in her murder cases.
Well, Palk seems insistent on flubbing the case by looking for a copycat-killer the second time around, but soon finds himself in the company of a mysterious guest at the hotel, Mr. Winkley, who swiftly acquired a reputation as a crime-fiction enthusiast. Initially, Winkley seems to be playing a poor man's Roger Sharingham, but there's a clever mind behind his fumbling and bumbling, which succeeded in drawing out the murderer and the explanation was very much in line with the psychological nature of the story.
The only disappointment was how very, very wrong my own solution was. I had dumped all of my eggs into one basket and was wrong on every count, which revolved around a description of one of the woman at the resort: described as a big woman with "large, capable hands" and "exquisitely corseted," but the "illusion of femininity" was marred by the "masculine tones of a deep, resonant voice." Nurse Hawkins had mentioned once or twice how the Victorian-minded patients "don’t like to be naked altogether," which would be a perfect cover for something that was very not done during the 1930s and the people who stumbled to this secret ended up with knitting-needle in their neck.
However, Knock, Murderer, Knock is a very good, well-written story and one that'll be especially appreciated by seasoned mystery readers, because it's something off the beaten track. Definitely recommended!